Tuesday, January 26, 2016

City Planning Debates: More Heat than Light

LOS ANGELES
PLATKIN ON PLANNING--There is no shortage of heat when it comes to planning debates in Los Angeles, but not much light, especially when attention turns to the proposed Neighborhood Protect Initiative.  For example, an instant opposition group, that does not appear to have even read the initiative, is already mislabeling it the Housing Moratorium Initiative.   
So, borrowing a term from Hizzoner, Eric Garcetti, lets return to some (city planning) basics.  Maybe it is possible to shed some light on these heated planning debates through three simple questions and answers: 
What do we mean by planning?  In California there is not much grey when it comes to planning.  Every city is legally required to prepare and adopt a General Plan.  State law not only specifies that this General Plan must be timely and internally consistent, but it also must include the following elements:  Land Use (Called community plans in Los Angeles),Circulation and Transportation (Called Mobility Element in LA),Housing, Noise, Conservation, Open Space, and Safety.  
In addition most cities, including LA, have an optional Air Qualityelement.  Furthermore, LA has another element that ties everything together, the General Plan Framework Element.  It also has a newHealth element, and many ancient elements, such as Infrastructure,that were prepared a half century ago, but never subsequently updated or rescinded. 
In LA nearly all of these General Plan elements are out-of-date. They are also internally inconsistent, with different base years, horizon years, and presumably even contradictory goals, policies, and implementation programs.  To say the least, they urgently need to be updated.  It is not just a question of following state law. Current, carefully monitored plans are necessary for LA to avoid the chaos resulting from roller coaster market forces determining the city’s fate. 
In addition to the General Plan element, most California cities must prepare an annual monitoring report on its General Plan that is submitted to Sacramento for review.  In LA, which is a charter city, this requirement is built into the legally adopted General Plan Framework Element and its related Environmental Impact Report.  Despite these legal obligations and related lawsuits, City Hall has ignored this monitoring requirement for the past 20 years.  It never created a mandated monitoring program, and it has never drafted a full monitoring report, just a few partial reports.  
This, then, is what constitutes planning in California.  Issues related to zoning, which occupy most of the time and energy of the LA Department of City Planning, are nothing more than a partial implementation mechanism for the city’s Land Use Element.  The 3,000 building permits per year that the Department of Building and Safety shunts off to City Planning for special review are, therefore, only a tiny part of what constitutes real city planning.    
It is, therefore, unfortunate that in Los Angeles, a city that desperately needs good planning, city planning has been reduced to zoning technicalities.  Most city planners, even those with graduate degrees and professional certifications, wile away their days as zoning technicians, processing the building permits that Building and Safety sends over to them.  In effect, their job is to legalize otherwise illegal projects. 
What do we mean by density?  In Los Angeles most references to density take their lead from the primary focus of the city’s planning department: reviewing and almost always approving land use exemptions for large and tall buildings that are otherwise illegal.  This is why in LA there is often agreement by proponents of these discretionary permits, as well as their critics, that density is nothing more than large buildings.  
But, this is only a small part of what really constitutes density.  Many cities that have dense buildings, like New York City, also have high-density public infrastructure and public services necessary for those dense commercial and residential buildings to function.  This includes high-density mass transit, as well as wide, well maintained, tree covered sidewalks that support a high-density pedestrian traffic.  It also means high-density libraries, neighborhood parks, and schools for the high-density population.  In it entirety, this is what should be called good density.  It also accounts for New York City’s low per capita carbon footprint.  In its case, a high density built environment actually works. 
But, in LA what already exists or is proposed for such neighborhoods as Hollywood, Koreatown, Downtown LA, and even Warner Center, is bad density.  It consists of high-density buildings that are permitted through discretionary approvals decades before essential supporting high-density infrastructure and services appear.  LA’s current planning approach is to therefore put the cart many, many years before the horse.  If it were to plan correctly, the General Plan’s mandatory and optional elements would first be brought up to date.  At the same time the city’s public infrastructure and public services need to be upgraded through careful planning and monitoring prior to the approval of new high-density buildings.  If this were done in the correct order, then LA could end up with good density, rather than the bad density that is already blighting much of the city and getting worse as the current real estate bubble swells. 
What do we mean by growth and development?  In L.A. these are euphemisms for real estate speculation.  When officials and pundits talk about growth and talk about development, they mean privately financed real estate projects, usually commercial skyscrapers, apartment complexes, or a mix of the two. 
But, this focus on real estate speculation is an inaccurate definition of growth and development.  Growth also refers to the full gamut of the planning issues addressed in a city’s General Plan, and development also includes all of the public facilities that are necessary for a large modern city like LA, that intend to become a high-density world city.  
Growth also includes the expansion of schools, colleges, universities, galleries, theaters, and museums.  Development should incorporate the roll out of the alternative transportation modes addressed, in part, by LA’s new Mobility Element:  high speed interurban rail, commuter rail, heavy rail (subways), light rail (trolleys), express busses, local buses, shuttles, motorcycles and bicycles, and finally walking.  In short, all of these infrastructure and service categories, whether public, non-profit, or private, are the sum of what should be factored into any analysis and description of growth and development.   
The Unifying Principle:  If there is a unifying principle that will turn all of this heat into light, it can be found in every General Plan.  These plans cover 100 percent of a city’s land area.  They address far more than the privately owned lots that are the subject of building permits and discretionary planning actions. 
Depending on the neighborhood, these private owned lots only comprise 20 to 40 percent of a city’s land area.  The remainder is streets, parkways, sidewalks, driveways, parking areas, public buildings, parks and beaches, power lines and related easements, and different forms of open space.  
Since this is a majority of a city’s total area, and this is fully addressed through the planning process, it only makes sense that these areas need to be fully considered when talking about planning, density, and growth and development.  It also means that these discussions should be linked to each city’s budgeting process and reflected in the work programs of each city department. 
(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who writes on local planning issues for City Watch.  He welcomes questions, comments, and corrections at rhplatkin@gmail.com. ) 
-cw
 CityWatch
Vol 14 Issue 7
Pub: Jan 22, 2016

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